When Silvia Pierini Dunn was 25 years old, she moved from her native Rome to the United States. Italian was her first language, and although proficient in English, she was certainly met with a language barrier.
“It was difficult to not only communicate my ideas, but also to understand other people’s,” she says. “This past experience has been my greatest push to volunteer as an interpreter. This kind of service is so important.”
Dunn, a course and classroom scheduling coordinator in the Office of the University Registrar, is one of several Penn staff members on the Foreign Language Interpreters Registry, which was created by Student Registration and Financial Services (SRFS) five years ago.
“We identified staff throughout the University willing to volunteer as interpreters, to ease the interactions between the Student Registration and Financial Services team and the students and parents whose native language isn’t English,” explains Michelle Brown-Nevers, associate vice president for SRFS. “It’s so important because we are such a global university, with many bilingual students and families.”
Currently, the Registry has six SRFS staff members and four external to SRFS who have committed to serving as interpreters, representing as a whole a proficiency in Italian, Spanish, French, German, Greek, Haitian Creole, Tamil, and Telugu. Brown-Nevers says her team is always looking for “whoever is willing to volunteer” to add to the list.
Having language interpreters available to assist front-facing staff and the families they are working with—either in person, via email, over the phone, or through Skype—is particularly important for SRFS, says Karen Hamilton, the office’s director of communications.
“We realize that processes and conversations around things like finances can be touchy, so this removes a language barrier for either parents or a current or potential student who may be proficient in English but just more comfortable speaking to someone who speaks their native language,” she says.
Elvira Cruz, assistant director of Student Financial Services, often converses with Spanish-speaking parents.
“It’s rewarding for me because I know I am able to ease their minds,” says Cruz. “They can call and I know after they’ve talked to me in their native language that they are much more comfortable.”
Conversations are not always strictly about financial aid, Cruz adds. She also sometimes gives tips about places to visit in Philadelphia, housing information, and more.
“Even if the parents don’t speak English, I want to make sure that they feel like they are part of the Penn community,” says Cruz. “The students, they adjust to it quickly. I want to make the same connection for the parents.”